BAGNÈRES-DE-BIGORRE, France — In 116 years of racing at the Tour de France, riders have done all sorts of bizarre things, such as jumping on trains or fighting with fans at mountain stops.
Rarely have they just vanished in the middle of a stage as Rohan Dennis did Thursday during the first Pyrenean stage.
For a couple of hours on an otherwise uneventful day in the mountains, nobody was able to say where Dennis, the time trial world champion, had gone. His Bahrain Merida team even sent an alarming message out on social networks, saying all it cared about was Dennis’s welfare after Tour organizers announced that he had pulled out of the race.
Dennis, an Australian, resurfaced at the finish line in Bagnères-de-Bigorre, where the British rider Simon Yates, the reigning Spanish Vuelta champion, posted his first stage win after a long breakaway that did not shuffle the overall standings.
Dennis was spotted near the Bahrain Merida team bus after the stage but did not comment on his decision to pull out.
“We are also confused,” Gorazd Stangelj, the Bahrain Merida team director, said. “It was his decision today to stop at the feed zone. We tried to speak with him. He said, ‘I just don’t want to talk’ and abandoned the race.”
Dennis quit with about 50 miles left before the two big climbs in Stage 12, prompting Bahrain Merida to open an investigation. According to the French TV station broadcasting the race, Dennis had an argument with officials in the team car.
Stangelj said Dennis had been in good enough condition to perform and said that he was not aware of any kind of argument that could have brought about the rider’s decision.
Dennis’s withdrawal was even more surprising as it came a day before Friday’s short time trial in Pau, where he would have been an obvious favorite, alongside the defending Tour champion Geraint Thomas, given his pedigree in races against the clock.
Stangelj said he was not aware of any complaint from Dennis regarding his time trial equipment and dismissed suppositions that Dennis might have been frustrated with his role in the team. Bahrain Merida’s main goal at the Tour this year was to fulfill the former Tour champion Vincenzo Nibali’s ambition to fight for a podium finish.
When asked if Dennis had been difficult to work with before, Stangelj said, “It’s difficult to answer this question.”
He added: “But I never have hard discussions with him. We always found a solution when it was needed.”
Stangelj said that after Dennis had stopped at the feed zone, he had not been able to reach out to him right away because Stangelj had already driven that point on the route and could not turn back. He eventually spoke to Dennis by phone after another team car arrived next to him.
Dennis’s extraordinary withdrawal was the talk of the day but did not eclipse Yates’s maiden win at the Tour.
Yates started a counterattack behind a group of fugitives in a technical downhill and was joined at the front by Gregor Mühlberger and Pello Bilbao. The trio worked well together until the final sprint shaped up 200 meters from the finish line in Bagnères-de-Bigorre. Yates started the sprint and was first into the last turn, and he held off Bilbao for the victory.
“I wasn’t very confident in beating them,” Yates said. “I didn’t know how fast these two riders were, but my sport director told me to take the last corner in first position, and I’m glad it worked out well. To have a stage at all three Grand Tours makes me very proud.”
Yates is working in support of his brother Adam at the three-week race and had kept a low profile until Thursday. He made his move in the Peyresourde downhill, reaching a maximum speed of 58.6 miles per hour. He was as impressive in the day’s final ascent, the Hourquette d’Ancizan, and was joined at the front by Mühlberger before Bilbao jumped across to them on the descent to Bagnères-de-Bigorre.
“This was probably a unique opportunity for me,” Yates said. “My main goal is to help Adam in the mountains, and we thought that wouldn’t be needed today. That’s why I took the breakaway.”
As the Tour hit high mountains with two first-category climbs, the main favorites closely watched each other and did not attack, saving strength for the harder days to come. The main pack of contenders crossed the finish line 9 minutes 35 seconds behind the winner, with no major change in the overall standings. Julian Alaphilippe of France kept the race leader’s yellow jersey, 1:12 ahead of Thomas.
Thomas’s teammate Egan Bernal, the Ineos co-leader, remained in third place, a further four seconds behind.
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